September 18, 2012

Political Repression and Illegal Books in Portland

Just in time for Banned Books Week, here is a bit of news that I hope comes to your attention if you are concerned with civil liberties and the freedom to read.

A couple of young people in Portland, fresh faced college students who like to say that they’re anarchists, have been arrested as part of an investigation of vandalism of a courthouse in Seattle. It doesn’t seem that they were involved, but the FBI regards anarchists not as a tribe of harmless bohemian-ish young intellectuals with a vague, semi-coherent political philosophy and taste for history, but as “criminals seeking an ideology to justify their actions” who are “not dedicated to a particular issue” (according to the FBI’s Domestic Terrorism Guide). The FBI’s search warrant that ordered the raid on their house specified that they were looking for “anarchist literature”…. which seems to imply that books containing anarchist political philosophy are considered illegal by the FBI.

In my opinion, this is a matter that deserves our attention during Banned Books Week. Not to minimize the importance of protecting the rights of teens to read novels that have mature themes that some members of their communities believe they are not ready to be exposed to yet (or the importance of questions about what teens are in fact ready to be reading), but this seems to be a case of political repression based in part on what books these young idealists may own. Raising further red flags about civil liberties questions is the fact that their subpoenas have been to appear before secret grand juries where the proceedings can’t be monitored by the press.

I read about this issue at Sound and Noise.

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August 5, 2012

Book Banning in Missouri

Journalism students at the University of Missouri have published a very important report on book censorship in Missouri. It makes for chilling, but necessary reading. Take a look here.

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June 1, 2012

Censorship at Canadian Library Association Conference – Librarians Expelled by Security Guards for Leafletting

Take note of this outrageous situation at the Canadian Library Association conference yesterday. Librarians opposing cuts to the Canadian National Library and Archives were ejected from the conference by force for passing out leaflets. The Executive Director of CLA claimed that the library conference was “not the right venue” for such activism. Read all about it on the blog of the unionized librarians of the University of Ottawa.

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May 25, 2012

Former NYPL employees silenced by non-disparagement agreement

Robin Pogrebin has an article in the New York Times from Wednesday, titled, Former Employees Feel Silenced on Library Project. They don’t just “feel” silenced though. First two paragraphs:

The New York Public Library’s plan to turn part of its flagship Fifth Avenue research center into a lending library has unleashed a torrent of commentary, with scholars, writers, artists and students signing a petition and writing articles, many of them critical. But one highly informed contingent has been notably silent: former curators, department heads and librarians.

That’s not because this group has no opinions. On the contrary, some former employees say they are eager to participate in the debate over the $300 million proposal, known as the Central Library Plan. But they say they can’t because they signed a nondisparagement agreement when they left, promising not to criticize the library in exchange for the additional pay known as severance.

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April 14, 2012

Censorship through travel restriction (two links)

Two links to share about what may be a growing trend – travel restrictions as a way to stifle political speech.

A column in Salon by Glen Greenwald a few days ago talks about the Department of Homeland Security’s detention of filmmaker and journalist Laura Poitras at the U.S. border. They detained her and took possession of her camera and laptop, downloading all of the files on both. Pretty scary. Funny how we have become numb to this kind of thing. Greenwald’s column also talks about other, similar instances.

An article in Haaretz today reports that several airlines have canceled the flights of about 60% of the activists who have been planning to fly in for a protest against the building of new settlements in Palestinian territory. The article begins:

Over 60 percent of the 1,500 pro-Palestinian activists due to arrive in Israel on Sunday to take part in a fly-in protest have received notifications from airlines that their flights have been canceled, the spokesman for the “Welcome to Palestine” protest told Haaretz on Saturday.

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March 27, 2012

New online resource: Alternatives in Print

Alternatives in Print is a directory of book publishers and critical periodicals, consisting of the former print resources, Annotations and Alternative Publishers of Books in North America (APBNA). Library Juice Press published the 6th edition of APBNA, and the Alternative Press Center has been the publisher of Annotations, the periodicals directory. We have been working together on an online version of these two reference books for some time, and finally have it completed. It will be updated continuously by the original compilers of the directory information.

The website lets you search the directory by title, subject, or keyword, limiting to either periodicals or publishers (or both in the advanced search). The “front matter” has introductory essays about the alternative press. Library Juice Press is very happy to provide Alternatives in Print as a free online resource.

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February 23, 2012

Obituary: Barney Rossett, groundbreaking publisher at Grove Press, lived to 89

Excerpted from Barney Rosset’s obituary:

By Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times

February 23, 2012
Barney Rosset, the renegade founder of Grove Press who fought groundbreaking legal battles against censorship and introduced American readers to such provocative writers as Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Jean Genet, died Tuesday in New York City. He was 89.

His daughter, Tansey Rosset, said he died after undergoing surgery to replace a heart valve.

In 1951 Rosset bought tiny Grove Press, named after the Greenwich Village street where it was located, and turned it into one of the most influential publishing companies of its time. It championed the writings of a political and literary vanguard that included Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Tom Stoppard, Octavio Paz, Marguerite Duras, Che Guevara and Malcolm X.

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November 30, 2011

Occupying the First Amendment

The recent assaults by the police on various Occupy movement encampments highlight the tenuousness of our right to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances. Certainly, there is good reason for municipal ordinances against permanently occupying public spaces. Under many circumstances, this would amount to appropriating public spaces for private use, but the Occupy encampments do not fit these circumstances. The Occupy encampments are of a kind with the recent and ongoing occupations of Tahrir Square in Cairo, the 1989 occupation of Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and the occupation of the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk in 1980. All of them are or were peaceful efforts to confront a nation’s political power structure and to rally fellow citizens to oppose corruption, abuse, and undemocratic institutions. President Obama has condemned state violence against Egyptian protesters, but it is no surprise that he and his administration remain silent when the right to assemble for political expression is denied in U.S. cities. The impulse to silence dissent (or to allow dissidents to be silenced) is strong among those in power.

Apologists for police repression in the U.S. point out that the crackdowns in Egypt, China, and Poland were far more brutal and of a greater scale than what is happening in our cities; however, the violation of our first amendment rights is no less a violation simply because less violent tactics are employed against smaller demonstrations. The ostensible reason for destroying the encampments is to protect public health, but it would be quite easy to work with the protesters to address any issues related to sanitation and public health, while respecting the right to assemble and petition the government for redress.

Beyond the right of the people to peaceably assemble, the freedoms of speech and of the press are also under attack. This has been made evident by the reported arrests of and assaults on journalists and the restrictions placed on them by police at encampments. It also has been dramatized recently by the confiscation and destruction of the People’s Library during an attack on the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park. The People’s Library contained over 6,000 volumes. Its destruction by the police illustrates the disregard that the New York Police Department and Mayor Bloomberg have for political expression. City officials are more concerned with fostering a certain image of the city and protecting Wall Street than they are with our constitutional rights. They are using City ordinances to crush political dissent.

Some might attempt to excuse the destruction of the People’s Library on the grounds that much of the collection was not unique and that it might have appeared to the police to be an ad hoc, ephemeral assortment of books and not a “real” library. It might have been seen as one of many things to be cleared from the park. However, American Library Association President Molly Raphael correctly observed that “the very existence of the People’s Library demonstrates that libraries are an organic part of all communities. Libraries serve the needs of community members and preserve the record of community history. In the case of the People’s Library, this included irreplaceable records and material related to the occupation movement and the temporary community that it represented.” She went on to express support for the librarians and volunteers working to reestablish the People’s Library. Roughly discarding tents and sleeping bags is one thing, but destroying the media of public discourse is a direct assault on democracy.

It is clear that the real intent of these police actions is simply to suppress political dissent. This serves no good purpose. Indeed, allowing the protest to continue would be of great benefit to everyone – both those who are sympathetic to the protest and to those who are not. It would allow the public and politicians to understand the depth of support for the Occupy movement. Without police interference, the size and longevity of the protest would be proportional to the indignation felt by the protesters and the popularity of their cause. If the grievances are trivial, the protest would soon evaporate. If they are serious, the growth and staying power of the encampments would make this known to everyone. Destroying the encampments merely obscures the issue, while it makes a mockery of our most prized civil liberties. It has, however, demonstrated the narrow boundaries of acceptable political dissent in the U.S. We owe great thanks to the occupiers for the sacrifices they are making to push back those boundaries and enlarge our freedom.

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September 24, 2011

Repressive Tolerance (link to essay by Marcuse) and a comment on information literacy

For those who have noted, along with Jon Stewart, that in the Fox News era the media treats facts in a relative way, as a matter of political taste… This phenomenon was first described by Frankfurt School critical theorist Herbert Marcuse, in his 1965 essay, “Repressive Tolerance.” According to Marcuse, it is a problem of the media system itself. Whatever ideas it communicates, as radical as they may be, become an entertainment commodity that audiences consume. It is a pessimistic standpoint, but it does clarify the fact that there is a way to stand outside the mass media system.

I would like to use this point of Marcuse to challenge librarians to reflect on their own understanding of information literacy and how we teach about it to our students. Are you teaching students to be outside of the world of media messages as thinkers and doers? I think that critical thinking, which is the heart of information literacy, is not possible without that ability.

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September 20, 2011

What Google permits and does not permit in Google eBooks

Given Google’s dominance in search and the scope and integration of their Google Books product (hate to use the word product, but libraries have been converted into product here), we should be especially aware of their policies regarding what they will permit and what they will not permit in terms of inclusion in their full text digital library of eBooks for sale.

Call it censorship or call it collection maintenance criteria, but Google has a a set of Content Policies governing what kinds of materials publishers are allowed to include in the Google eBooks database. I have no criticism of these policies or the fact that they have them. Given the complexity of speech law and their legitimate interest in avoiding legal liability, they have no option but to have these policies in effect and to design them according to their lawyers’ most diligent work.

What I would argue is that because Google’s dominance of the market in certain respects gives them a degree of monopoly power, these policies are to an extent public policies and should be discussed in public fora, under the assumption that Google should be held, to a degree, publicly accountable for these policies, and conversely, that if the public has a role in shaping these policies, that the public itself also share a degree of accountability for their consequences.

The categories of Google’s Content Policies are: spam and malware; violent, threatening or disgusting materials; hate speech; sexually explicit material; child safety; Personal and Confidential information; Illegal activities; and Copyright. Note that these are categories for which they have designed some succinctly stated rules. Users can “Report Abuse” to cause an eBook to be reviewed according to these policies, and then somewhere in the Google offices they make a decision regarding the item according to their interpretation of the policies.

Vendors – bookstores, etc. – have always had policies regarding what they will stock and present to customers, but Google’s status as a total search utility with an overwhelmingly dominant position makes the situation different, to the extent that I think we need to look at these policies in light of intellectual freedom concerns.

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September 13, 2011

Rory Litwin interviews SafeLibraries’ Dan Kleinman

Dan Kleinman is the man behind the SafeLibraries campaign, which opposes the American Library Association’s intellectual freedom efforts regarding challenged books in school libraries and classrooms. From Dan’s point of view, as many know, ALA is responsible for exposing children to sexually inappropriate materials. Dan agreed to an interview, which we conducted on Facebook chat. The interview follows, typos included:

RL: Hi, Dan, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed.

DK: Hi Rory, thanks.

RL: Also, I’d like to thank you for sending me the powerpoint to the talk you gave recently, which was sponsored by a local Tea Party group. In your talk, you shared a quotation from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War that I found very interesting, about how the key to winning a battle is knowing your enemy. This was the reason you gave for talking so much about ALA and the ACLU. There’s something I want to ask you about regarding that.

In talking about ALA, you accuse them of a lot of pretty bad things, including advising librarians to promote inappropriate materials, plagiarizing on a regular basis, whitewashing rape and blaming the victims, aiding and abetting pedophiles, wanting children to access pornography, and I could go on. In my experience in ALA, all of this is far from the truth. But even if it were, I think that in terms of “knowing the enemy” there is something missing, which is the motivation. So I wanted to ask you, what do you think ALA’s motivation is in all of this? Do you think we are all sex perverts or something?

DK: Setting aside the ALA’s OIF, the ALA is an outstanding organization and I included that in my talk. And I’ll be happy to talk anywhere–it’s just that a tea party was the first to invite me and follow through. I was previously invited to speak at a senior citizen’s center but it never happened.

As to the OIF, it is not so much that I accuse them of that. What I am really doing is reporting what they are actually doing and linking to the sources where people can see this for themselves.

As to the “sex perverts” issue, no, I do not think the OIF is motivating in that regard in any way.

motivated

RL: In your talk you do refer to the villain as the ALA, but we can talk about the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom if you prefer. Still, I wonder what you think their motivation is in doing what you say they have done?

DK: I was asked that very question by the media. I have no response for that. I simply do not know why the OIF wants children to access inappropriate material. As Will Manley puts it,

“the library profession is the only profession in the world that wants children to have access to pornography.” http://safelibraries.blogspot.com/2011/05/will-manley-outs-library-profession-as.html

Perhaps ask Will the same question.

RL: Okay… Staying on the same theme of motivation, I am interested in knowing more about you, and how you got into this campaign. Could you talk a bit about that?

DK: I detail how I got into this here: http://safelibraries.blogspot.com/2011/07/porn-and-sex-abuse-in-our-public.html

Basically, my kindergartner got an inappropriate book that was recommended by the ALA and given her by an ALA member librarian.

I began to investigate why and I haven’t stopped since.

RL: What was the book?

DK: Mangaboom, by Charlotte Pomerantz. It won a Caldecott Award.

RL: one sec, I’d like to look it up.

DK: Okay. In the meantime, I brought the book to the principal. SHE said the book was TWICE as bad as what I reported and SHE removed it from the library. I did not ask her to remove the book. She did that on her own.

RL: I just read the descriptions on the Amazon page for the book, and it doesn’t give any warning about inappropriate material. One of the books is from School Library Journal (not a part of ALA), and the other is from Booklist (which does come from ALA). Neither of these reviews indicates that there is anythign controversial in them. Two questions. First, what about the book is bad? And second, do you have an issue with Amazon for recommending the book to Kindergarten-age kids?

(By the way, Dan, just so that there is no question of unfairness, when I publish this interview I am going to leave in all the typos and mistakes.)

DK: She went skinny dipping on a blind date with three guys. Ooh la la, she said in a lusty voice. It had text like that.

As to book reviews, they are misleading. Again, that is not an accusation, rather, that is something I am reporting merely as the messenger. In this case, a school administrator said this:

“School Excoriates Book Reviews that Fail to Disclose ‘Graphic Sexual Details’ in Books for Children; Lush by Natasha Friend is ‘Wildly Inappropriate’ for Certain Children” http://safelibraries.blogspot.com/2010/12/school-excoriates-book-reviews-that.html

RL: Do you think there is honest disagreement about what is appropriate for kids of different ages?

And if Mangaboom is so inappropriate for kids, why do you think these major reviewers would be so irresponsible as to leave out any warning? Do you think they also are intentionally trying to expose children to sexually inappropriate materials?

DK: By the way, no book is “bad.” Bad books is not the issue. I support authors writing whatever they like, and my blog evidences that. The problem is the OIF’s actions vis-a-vis certain books.

As to whether there is honest disagreement, one merely needs look at the ALA to say yes. Regarding the book Push, by Sapphire, the ALA said the book was right for all ages on one ALA page (Teen Hoopla), and said the book was only for 11th graders and up on another ALA page. So the ALA disagrees with itself, and the ALA is in favor of “banning” the book from kids in 10th grade and below.

Would you like me to get the ala pages for you to prove this?

As to the Mangaboom issue you raise, it never even occurred to me what you are suggesting regarding publishers and/or major reviewers. Now that you are asking, no, they are not intentionally trying to expose children to sexually inappropriate materials.

RL: Okay, so then, why do you think they are so much less concerned about this issue than you are?

DK: Publishers? Reviewers? Why are they less concerned than me? I don’t know. They are not the problem.

RL: Okay, I’ll ask the same question regarding librarians (ALA member-librarians). Why do you think we are so much less concerned?

DK: Again, ALA member librarians are not the problem. The OIF is the problem. And the way the OIF enforces its diktat is the problem. See, for example, “3 Ways to Get Blackballed in the Library Profession,” by Will Manley, Will Unwound, #428, 26 April 2011. http://willmanley.com/2011/04/26/will-unwound-428-3-ways-to-get-blackballed-in-the-library-profession/

“Perhaps the most career limiting move that you could make in the library profession is to refuse to toe the line with the anything goes philosophy of the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom.”

Again, Rory, I’m not accusing. I’m merely the messenger pointing out what others are saying. Then I have the nerve to speak about it.

By the way, I used to be an ALA member and only dropped out simply because I could no longer afford to remain a member.

RL: I find it curious that you should say that the publishers and reviewers of these books are not the problem, when these books are published for kids.

Authors, too, of course.

And I will just add as a bit of information – in my experience in ALA, the vast majority of members support what the Office for Intellectual Freedom does. In fact, if they didn’t support it, they would change it, since it is a member-controlled organization.

But there is genuine disagreement about these books, including within ALA, certainly.

As for pointing out what others are saying, I have not heard anyone else say that ALA OIF is guilty of “advising librarians to promote inappropriate materials,” “plagiarizing on a regular basis,” “whitewashing rape and blaming the child victim,” “aiding and abetting pedophiles,” etc.

DK: As to authors? They can and should write whatever they like without any limitation at all.

Publishers and reviewers can do a better job in providing such information, true, but their job is to sell books, and they are selling books, and salesmen generally don’t announce the warts, so I see no problem with salesman selling books.

The problem is the OIF. It advises, correctly, that parents are responsible for book selection. At the same time, it makes recommendations for parents that do not provide accurate information. So when those parents actually do get involved, and when they trust the ALA for a list of reading material, they end up being misled, and, for example, their 12 year old ends up reading a graphic description of oral sex.

RL: Did your 12 year old read a graphic description of oral sex?

Sorry, that is was an unfair question.

Of course not – you are very careful about what your child is exposed to. That is very clear.

DK: If others are not reporting on the ALA’s misdeeds, that is not my fault. I admit I am on the leading edge in this regard.

Sometimes, however, people do finally say what I have been noting. I have been noting, for example, that Banned Books Week is propaganda. Recently, you yourself made the same observation, likely for a different reason, but the same observation nevertheless. http://libraryjuicepress.com/blog/?p=3019

RL: I do have a problem with Banned Books Week, but you’re right, it’s for a different kind of reason.

I don’t have quite the same problem with children and teens being exposed to books that have sexual subject matter, when it is presented at a level that is appropriate.

I’m really interested in the fact that people have such different ideas about what is appropriate for kids.

DK: “[W]hen it is presented at a level that is appropriate.” Bingo!

RL: People clearly disagree about what is appropriate. Right?

So I’m interested in why you are so concerned about this, why you have made this issue the focus of your life, where others are less concerned or have much more liberal ideas about what is appropriate.

DK: The issue is NOT what is appropriate. The issue is how and why the OIF misleads local communities on a number of issues, and as a result people are being harmed in a manner that would not have occurred but for the OIF’s intervention.

RL: The fact that your child was exposed to Mangaboom doesn’t seem like a complete explanation, because many parents saw that book and didn’t worry about the way you did. For you it was an outrage that your child would be exposed to it at school. Right?

DK: No. At first it was surprise. I brought it to the principal. She said it was twice what I reported. She removed it. Not me. I did not ask her to do that. That is what started me on this issue. Similar incidents is what starts other people similarly.

Was I outraged later, after learning it was a book recommended by the ALA? Perhaps, depending on the meaning of outrage.

RL: What I’m trying to get at is the fact that you are especially sensitive to the problem of children being exposed to sexually oriented materials. I doubt that Mangaboom has been removed from most school libraries, because most parents don’t have a problem with it. You may have an insight into the effects of exposure to sex-related material on children that most people lack. I don’t know. But I can’t let it go without remarking on it that you are very sensitive to this issue, and that your campaign, your life’s work, is based on this concern you have. At the same time, developmental psychologists are hardly at the forefront of your campaign; on the contrary, they are often authors or advisors to authors of books for young people that address sexual subjects.

So I wonder, how do you define what is appropriate?

DK: What I define as appropriate is irrelevant, except as it pertains to my own local issues. As I said before regarding Push, even the ALA has divergent views on what is appropriate.

Now If I seem unusually sensitive to the issue, that is simply because it became clear to me that children hurt by the ALA cannot fight back themselves and are not even aware of the problem. As a result, the negative effects of the OIF spread without so much as a whimper. So I am standing up for the most innocent in our society. I don’t see a problem in that. I am asking why it has to be this way that the OIF acts the way it does. It doesn’t. And I’m doing something about it. And I am showing others what they can do about it. But the first step is to become aware that it is even an issue in the first place.

RL: It is an issue to you, that is clear. But to take the case of Mangaboom, which is the book that you say got you started, I think most parents would not see an issue. So do you think most parents don’t understand something about kids that you understand?

Sorry, I can see that that is an unfair question.

Clearly, as you see it, ALA is out-of-step with most parents. Is that right?

DK: No. Again that is not the issue. I am not the issue. I have no special “insight into the effects of exposure to sex-related material on children that most people lack.”

I simply saw something wrong in some out of state organization pushing material on my child that the principal removed from the library for being inappropriate. Then I simply acted on that. Had the OIF not acted in a manner that put that book in my child’s hands, we would not even be having this conversation. I am not the issue. The OIF is.

Ah! After I answered that I see you added a few sentences. So yes, it is the ALA, really the OIF, that is out of step, and I can link to a number of librarians saying exactly that.

Dean Marney, for example, talks about ALA “dogma.” http://tinyurl.com/ALADogma

RL: So, that would prove that they are out of step with a number of librarians. It can be really hard to know what the majority of Americans think, even with well-designed polls. But let’s say that ALA had not been involved and these books had ended up in the library, what then? It seems likely enough, given that publishers, reviewers, authors, and parents who buy the book support them in the marketplace.

What would be the focus of your campaign then?

DK: “It can be really hard to know what the majority of Americans think, even with well-designed polls.”

Well, the OIF says anything goes in public schools.

In contrast, a recent Harris Poll says the exact opposite: “Most Oppose Explicit Books in Public Schools Says Harris Poll” http://tinyurl.com/MostOpposeExplicitBooks

That’s pretty clear evidence the OIF is out of step with the public.

If the OIF were not involved, and this were happening merely as a matter of market forces, then I would not have the concerns I do now. SafeLibraries addresses the OIF, not market forces.

RL: Again, at issue is the definition of what is explicit, what is appropriate or not. The Harris Poll might not apply to many of the books you object to, like Mangaboom for example. And unfortunately it does seem to be very difficult to discuss where the lines should be drawn, and for what developmental reasons.

Ok, thanks for your explanation regarding market forces.

This interview has gotten to be long, and I’m not sure there is more ground that we are going to be successful in covering.

DK: That may be your issue, namely the definition of appropriate reading material, but it is not mine. You see, that decision gets to be made by local communities, not by me.

I address the OIF and the harm it may be doing in local communities. Like the library employees being harassed in Birmingham, AL. Like the toddler raped in a public library bathroom in Des Moines, IA, as a result of ALA policy, something that did not come to light until I got directly involved. Please consider asking me questions along those lines.

Okay, then thank you for this opportunity to speak with you on these important issues. I will be happy to speak with you again in the future. And hello to Library Juice readers!

RL: Thanks very much, Dan! I think this was an enlightening interview.

DK: Yes, thank you.

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September 1, 2011

An Illinois Man Is Facing 75 Years In Jail For Filming Police (video)

Not exactly a library issue, but one which rests on the same ideals.

It seems urgent to me that we legalize making video recordings of on-duty police officers. (Only illegal in some states.)

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August 29, 2011

Tension over Weibo, the Chinese Twitter

You will probably be hearing more about Weibo, a Chinese social networking site that combines aspects of Twitter and Facebook and presently has, at a minimum, 140 million users, which is nearly three times the user base of Twitter.

The interesting news at present is that the Chinese government, which shut down access to Twitter some time ago, has sent out mass messages on Weibo warning people that two recent posts were false. Here are accounts of the story from The Atlantic and The New York Times. My friend Anne Mostad-Jensen, a user of the site, sent me this screenshot of the government’s notice on the site (though if you can read Chinese, chances are you’ve already seen it).

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August 28, 2011

My problem with Banned Books Week

Some of my colleagues in the Progressive Librarians Guild used to complain that Banned Books Week was an unfortunate distraction from the greater problem of a propagandistic media system. I shared that view and still do, but it is not the objection that I want to explain today.

My problem with Banned Books Week is one that is probably shared by some conservatives, and it has to do with the loose definition of what a “banned book” is, and what a “challenged book” is. Over time, as I have come to understand my own politics better, I have realized that what I care about is rational discourse as the basis for a democratic society. In rational discourse, as I see it, it is important to be clear about what you are actually saying, to ask critical questions with a patience for detail, and to reject strategic communication and to minimize rhetoric. The Banned Books Week project, well-intended as it may be, is a propaganda exercise that fails to model good standards for democratic communication.

Here is what I mean.

The history of book banning is a history of inspiring stories, stories of mass suppression of ideas, copies of books collected so that they can be burned, publishers incarcerated, often ultimately to no avail as the power of an idea proved greater than the power of the state or of a fascistic party. Book banning, good people agree, should be fought against, and is a source of inspiration to fight for what is right. Banned Books Week taps into people’s response to these historical narratives and aims to prevent the suppression of ideas from recurring. A noble intention and a narrative resource.

The problem that I see with Banned Books Week is that what counts as a “banned book” is actually a “challenged book,” and what counts as a challenged book is something quite different from an effort to prevent a book from being published, sold, or even made available in a library. Most of the cases of challenged books that are reported as a part of Banned Books Week are cases where a parent of a child objects to a book being a part of their child’s school curriculum, or at other times in the school’s library, on the grounds of “age appropriateness.” Defenders of intellectual freedom, to my dismay, have an unwritten policy of never addressing the question of age appropriateness, leaving it as an unstated assumption that anything selected for the curriculum by educators as opposed to by parents is automatically age-appropriate, as though educators are incapable of error.

School districts have policies in place for reviewing challenges to books on the basis of age-appropriateness. Challenged books are reviewed and evaluated by committees that are charged with that responsibility, and then the school district makes an official decision regarding the book. Regardless of what the school’s decision turns out to be, regardless of its reasonableness or unreasonableness, and regardless of the objectivity or bias within the decision-making process in a specific case, all challenges to a book by a parent get counted as an attempt at book banning.

Personally, I agree with intellectual freedom orthodoxy that says that one family should not have the right to determine what other students are taught, and this is part of what public education is. But when a book is challenged and reviewed on the grounds of age-appropriateness, it is ultimately not the family that brought the challenge that makes the decision. The decision is made by the educational institution itself. We can hope that more often than not these decisions are well-informed and based more on educational psychology than they are on pressure from an ideological community group. They may not always be. But the decision about whether a book should remain a part of the curriculum or not is ultimately made by the public institution that put the book in the curriculum in the first place, which means that book challenges happen as a part of a process that the institution puts in place in order to get feedback from the community on the curriculum. (In some other areas, we on the left are fighting for more opportunities to influence local policies to meet local needs.)

What I want to emphasize about this is that the “book banning” that is the subject of Banned Books Week is not book banning as we understand it historically but part of the cultural fight over the school curriculum. Now, I am prepared to fight hard to keep rationality and science and humanism in the school curriculum, against the theocrats who seem to be making incredible progress in rolling back not only 20th century liberalism but the values behind the Constitution itself (i.e. secular democracy). But in fighting that fight over the curriculum, what I am ultimately fighting for is rational discourse as opposed to irrationality. If I give up basic standards of rational discourse and resort to strategic communication and propaganda… well, as we said about Al Qaida during the debate over the PATRIOT Act: “They have won.”

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August 19, 2011

Suppression of science has continued, despite Obama’s Scientific Integrity Initiative

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility is coming to the defense of biologist Charles Monnett, who is being hounded by the Interior Department because of a 2006 publication that communicated alarming news about the effects of global warming on a polar bear population. Since the publication was in a peer-reviewed scientific journal and the investigators have not raised any specific questions about its scientific validity it seems to be an effort to suppress a finding for political reasons. Read more on the website of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. Thanks to Fred Stoss for sharing this information.

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